Four years ago, as I was nearing the completion of my coursework at Regent College, I somewhat naively signed up for a seminar on the life and thought of German pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My only exposure to him to that point had been his famous book The Cost of Discipleship (a book whose title in German, I would soon discover was simply Nachfolge, or Discipleship. The change has been made in Augsburg Fortress’s republishing of the definitive collection of Bonhoeffer’s works). I had read this book in my early twenties, but my recollection of its themes was unimpressive, to put it mildly.
When I signed up for the course, I knew very little about Bonhoeffer the man or the theologian. I knew little of his involvement in the resistance against the evils of Nazi Germany including his support of Operation Valkyrie (the attempt to assassinate Hitler), nothing of his theological pedigree forged in the halls of (and often in opposition to) the theological liberalism of the early-twentieth century German academy (one of Bonhoeffer’s instructors was the famous Adolf von Harnack). Perhaps most importantly, I had little conception of the rare combination of theological and philosophical sophistication, devotion to Christ and his church, and commitment to action that characterized this towering figure.
Each of these deficiencies was duly corrected over the course of the four months we spend going through each of Bonhoeffer’s four most well-known works (Discipleship, Life Together, Letters and Papers from Prison, and his never-completed magnum opus, Ethics). I came to deeply admire and appreciate Bonhoeffer as a thinker and, more importantly, as a disciple of Jesus Christ who was committed to live his life in response to the question of what Jesus would have him do, at this point in history.
This admiration and appreciation of Bonhoeffer has only deepened by reading Eric Metaxas’s excellent biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Metaxas is a gifted storyteller who skillfully weaves together biography, history, and theology into a coherent and compelling narrative, not only of Bonhoeffer’s own life but of the historical events that so profoundly shaped him.
A complex and fascinating figure emerges. Metaxas masterfully brings together the various strands of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, and shows how they all played a role in leading to the events for which he would later become most famous. From Bonhoeffer’s determination to study theology (despite the wishes of his family, who, while supportive, thought this course to be unworthy of his intellectual gifts) to his earning of his PhD from the University of Berlin at age 21 (his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, was described as a “theological miracle” by none other than Karl Barth) to his time spent studying in America (where he found the theological climate insipid, to put it mildly) to his pastoral work in Barcelona, London, and parts of Germany to training pastors in the Confessing Church (the name for the church that separated itself from the state church in opposition to their capitulation to Nazi ideology), to his written work, all contributed to the formation of the formidable intellect and courageous personal character that were the source of the written work and the actions for which Bonhoeffer would become most well-known.
Readers of this book will get a good sense of how difficult Bonhoeffer was to pin down, theologically. He was neither “conservative” nor “liberal” in the traditional understandings of these terms. He puzzled liberals with his insistence on reading Scripture not as a historical artifact, but as the living and active word of God that was meant to be applied to life today. His involvement in the ecumenical church movement and his adoption of near-monastic rules at the Confessing Church seminaries he led in Zingst and Finkenwalde raised conservative eyebrows. His insistence that the voice of Christ must be sought and obeyed in the concrete reality of everyday life as opposed to taking refuge in philosophical or ethical “principles” was difficult to accept for many—especially when, as Bonhoeffer would demonstrate in his involvement in an assassination attempt on Hitler despite his near-pacifist convictions, obedience to Christ could mean going against your own principles. Bonhoeffer didn’t fit well into existing categories.
Most of all, though, Metaxas gives us a picture of the man, Bonhoeffer. We see a man who is profoundly devoted to his family and his country, who misses both terribly when he is away. We see a man who loved music and was a tremendously gifted pianist, who appreciated movies and novels, who played soccer with his seminary students. We read numerous diary entries, letters (many from a cell at Tegel Prison) to family members, friends, colleagues, and his fiancé that give us a window into his personal joys, hopes, fears, and concerns. We see a man of unshakeable conviction and devotion to Christ, whose daily life is guided by Scripture reading and prayer, and who is constantly asking the question of what discipleship entails. Perhaps the greatest gift of Metaxas’s book is the way in which we come to know the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The guiding question of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was, “what does obedience to Jesus Christ demand of us here and now?” It was a question that led him to become actively involved in direct resistance to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. His reasons for resisting were profoundly theological in that he abhorred the Nazi views of non-Aryans, the elderly, the handicapped, etc. and their naked lust for power. His reasons were also deeply personal; his twin sister Sabine was married to Gerhard Leibholz who, while a baptized Christian, was of Jewish extraction. From the beginning of Hitler’s reign, Bonhoeffer loudly and consistently spoke out against the German church’s capitulation to the nationalistic sloganeering and blatant evil of the Third Reich. Obedience to Christ trumped allegiance to the state, and Bonhoeffer was contemptuous of the state church’s failure to realize and act upon this truth. For Bonhoeffer, the evils of the Nazism demanded an unambiguous response of resistance as obedience from the church of Christ.
Ultimately, of course, Bonhoeffer’s actions would lead to his execution on April 8, 1945 at a concentration camp in Flossenburg, just a month before the fall of Nazi Germany. He was 39 years old.
Despite knowing how the story would end, I found Metaxas’s description of Bonhoeffer’s last days to be profoundly moving. Perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the book for me was Flossenburg camp doctor H. Fischer Hüllstrung’s account of Bonhoeffer’s last minutes:
I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
I enthusiastically recommend this fine biography of a man who no only died, but lived “entirely submissive to the will of God.”